Nov 1 2011: The Folklore of Apples and Third Wassail Song (from Orchard, 2011)

The Folklore of Apples

“The birch is mentioned as ‘very noble’ in Gwion’s Cad Goddeu, but the apple tree was the noblest tree of all, being the tree of immortality.The poets of Wales have always been aware of its spiritual pre-eminence, and the lovely medieval Afalleneu (‘Sweet apple tree crimson in hue/Which grows concealed in Forest Celyddon…’) is not a poem about the orchard apple tree, but about the apple tree of the sacred thicket, the tree that is the harbourage of the hind. Where did King Arthur go to be healed of his grievous wounds? To the Isle of Avalon, the secret ‘island of apple trees’. With what talisman was Bran summoned by the White Goddess to enter the Land of Youth? With ‘a silver white-blossomed apple branch from Emain in which the bloom and branch were one’…”

Robert Graves: The White Goddess (1948)

(i) An Ancient Catechism

How many trees
of how many types
in Ogham script? Answer: three.

Of the chieftains:
oak and hazel, alder, vine,
ivy, blackthorn, furze and heath.

Of the peasants:
birch, rowan, willow, ash,
whitethorn, apple, holly, whin.

All others are shrub. Let me begin…

(ii) Petitions for Love

“I may throw the apple at you and if you are willing to love me, please catch it and share your youth; but if your thoughts are what I hope with all feeling they are not, then still catch it, I beg you, if only in consideration of how short-lived that beauty I desire shall be…”

Plato: Epigrams (vii)

When Paris of Troy took the apple and handed it to Aphrodite
in exchange for her promise to win him Helen’s love
he gave back only what was already possessed by her.

This is her petition: throw an apple toward your heart’s desire,
hold your breath as the sphere takes flight, hope or fear
that girl will catch it, that boy let it fall and bruise.

These are her visions: cast a single unbroken apple peel,
seek in the scrabble where it lands on the ground
the initials of someone you’ll one day marry or take to bed.

Was this the betrayal of Eve, God casting apples into Eden’s air
then declaring her false when she made the catch?
All apples belong to love. No sin could come from eating one.

(iii) The Tree of Life

These apples glow, golden on the boughs
of this garden’s tree of life
as lightbulbs on a seaside promenade
when the sun goes down.


Apples bring health, radiate youth
from the elegant hands of Idun,
costermonger to the Nordic Gods
who carries apples like a farmgirl’s eggs.


Apples feed the immortal dead,
shadows freeze on their open fields.
There is no sun, neither day nor night.
Lunar apples: no other light.


Even for doctors on suburban wards
a single apple, eaten once a day,
keeps themselves and their kind away:
so long as the apples last, at least.

(iv) Under the Golden Bough

The healing of an individual and the repair and fertility of land are linked in the mythic universe that proved so influential on the twentieth century, that of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, whose sympathetic magic involves transfers of energy between the natural and human worlds: it’s something like this that underscores the idea of wassailing, where song, chant and dance are used to ‘wake’ apple trees from their winter sleep, with cider or beer poured at the roots as substitutes for the more serious sacrificial offerings of earlier ages. That apples symbolise rebirth (besides, in their seasonal cycles, practising it) perhaps closes the circle around youth, healing, fertility and the apple’s other mythic attributes.

(v) Odin’s Answer to King Rerir’s Plea for a Son

Volsunga Saga, Icelandic, late 13th Century

A remarkable sight that dawn: an apple dropped from the sky by crows!
King Rerir’s wife ate that apple whole: six years later, bore a child.

(vi) Conle, Son of Conn

Irish, 8th Century.

Apples? Ask Conle, son of Ireland’s King.
One fruit sustained his appetite
through months and years:
enchanted as that apple was
each bite he took broke a link to home.

He was glimpsed crossing in a crystal boat
from here to another place:
it’s said women lived there alone
with no sadness, hunger or pain.
Conle was never seen again.

(vii) England’s Bacchanalia

In Greek legend, Atalanta challenged her various suitors to an impossible race that would ensure she would remain unmarried: but Hippomenes won her with the lure of three golden apples given to him by Aphrodite. This stanza from Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poem Atalanta in Calydon (1865) may not directly refer to those apples, but the connections between vegetation and desire are certainly here, and explicit enough for their shadow to bear the point for apples too:

The ivy falls with the Bacchanal’s hair
over her eyebrows hiding her eyes;
the wild vine slipping down leaves bare
her bright breast shortening into sighs;
the wild vine slips with the weight of its leaves,
but the berried ivy catches and cleaves
to the limbs that glitter, the feet that scare
the wolf that follows, the fawn that flies…

Besides, isn’t cider the product of our own climate’s most productive vine? Had Bacchus (also known as Dionysus, a deity, incidentally, celebrated in the decorative stonework of The Pegger’s Inn on Sneinton Market itself) been conceived in our own culture, he would surely have found apples rather than grapes his plants of first resort. Many of the wassail songs of Devon, Herefordshire and Kent operate on something of this underlying belief: give us bread, ale and cider and we’ll bring rebirth.

from: Six Wassail Songs


Here’s to the ancient apple tree:
may it bud and flower,
bring fruit forth
for every harvest
while the seasons turn.

Let the cold winds blow
bearing apples enough
to pack caps, hats,
pockets and sacks
buckets, bushels and baskets full.

Well may it flower
and well may it bud,
well may it bear the best of fruit
for every harvest
when next year comes.


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